Mathew Sawyer & The Ghosts are to be found in London most of the time. Their name is not a trick and their leader was born in Hammersmith in 1977. He has just masterminded the first Ghosts studio album, Blue Birds Blood, a collection of songs notable for their exceptional willingness to just be songs, and nothing more. Aptly haunting and riddled with melancholy, almost every track on the album could, you feel, instantly qualify for 'classic' status; at least in the sense that three-minute cuts which sound like The Modern Lovers covering The Ronettes in Dan Treacy's bedroom could be 'classic'.
First stumbling upon the trio in Highbury last June, I was taken straight away with a marrying of heart-meltingly naive melodies and lo-fi musicianship that threw up a wistful fugue over the Buffalo Bar. There was one song in particular that got at me and made me seek it out online, its stabbing chords reaching deep and twisting the knife, before the chorus comes along and pulls my ticker out through my ears anyway. I asked the girl standing next to me what it was and she told me it was an ELO cover called 'Heartbreaker' - thankfully, she lied, or at least half-lied. "It's all mine and no other fucker’s," as Sawyer says. He's rightly possessive - it's the sort of song a man can be proud of.
How's it going?
All okay for me, except a broken knuckle and finger. By a girl, I might add, after I told her I was a black belt.
Haha, how did she break your fingers?
Well, it was the end of the evening and everything was woozy. I told her that I was a black belt but didn't, like, boast and that I could, in fact, pretty much beat up everyone in the room; all at once or one at a time. So, yes, she took my admission as a challenge and grabbed my two smallest fingers by the root in her fist, then she kind of fell over and held on like you would on the Tube to one of those things that hang. There was a big CRACK, like chalk snapping...Yuk.
I hope it heals quickly. I wanted to ask you if you had any gigs coming up, but I suppose this might change things...
Well there was a few, but with the broken hand it's all off for the moment. I'm playing at the Spitz this Friday maybe, supporting Simon Breed. But that's only if I can get together with my friend and he'll play guitar and I will just sing and this could fall apart quite easily. Which is why I said yes to it. After that I'm running away to Rio de Janeiro on the 9th of March until the 20th of May, so I plan to play a couple gigs out there.
Will you take the rest of the band out there? Is there a regular line-up?
There isn't ever really a regular line-up. The Ghosts have been various friends or anyone who would like to play. I tried to always make it open to anyone who wants to give it a go, with no experience necessary, trying to keep away from the horrible sound of a band going through the motions – there’s nothing more boring than playing the same songs in the same way over and over. This works to a certain extent and can sometimes bring about brilliant moments when everyone's trying to hang on for dear life and they pull it off. But I found that, on the whole, it's detrimental not to keep regular partners. Why couldn't the lifeguard save the drowning hippy? He was too far out... So now I'm working with the same people as much as possible, as in the past people I cared about felt messed about. And walked away. It's different now.
How did recording Blue Birds Blood compare to your releases in the past?
It's the first proper release, made in a studio and with others playing on it. I've made various bedroom CDs in the past and given them away to people, and used them in art shows I've done. They were more improvised though - still songs, just very lo-fi.
See, I wasn't even sure if it was your first 'proper' album. In a time when most bands are looking to exploit every promotional opportunity they can, there's not much about The Ghosts on the internet, and I haven't seen anything in the press. Is this relative anonymity deliberate on your part?
I've never been much of a self promoter. It's not something I'm comfortable with. That's not to say I don't have a terrible ego, it's more that I tend to forget to join in with the other children and I'm prone to laziness. I've also played under a few different names too, so there's not been much for others to hold on to.
How long ago was it that you started making music?
In my early teens I used to play drums in bands with friends and loved bands like Huggy Bear, a lot of the riot grrrl stuff and early ‘80s Rough Trade like The Raincoats and Young Marble Giants. I was writing songs just by singing the other, so I thought it would be easier to learn guitar. I used to play my brother's when he was out. It was just through necessity, though – I needed chords to play under the words, just something to carry them in. I still have no interest in technical musicianship. It's neither here nor there... this is an objective point of view.
Your music to me sounds very honest, and seems to wear its heart on its sleeve. You paint don't you? Do you approach your other art in the same, honest, way?
Yes, I hope so. It's not a philosophy as such, just the way things turn out. I couldn't stand putting on an American accent or pretending I was a nihilist. Those sort of approaches don't do anyone any good.
In that sense, I can hear a lot of band's like Television Personalities in the music, and I saw you playing drums at the Barfly last year when they played there. Are you still playing drums with Television Personalities? What's it like working with Dan Treacy?
No, John Bennett the original drummer plays with them now. I just played on the last album My Dark Places and at a few gigs. A lot of the time it was very chaotic and I just tried to muddle through. I'm not very good at keeping time.
Where do your songs come from?
Who knows? I would imagine it's a mix of personal history, present situations, future dreams and a library of other people's music. It's not something that you can pin down. Maybe it's the spirit world or Argos.
Do you think they would've sounded the same if they'd been recorded in New York, or Brazil, or anywhere other than London?
Well, the sound was particular to where I recorded them because of the equipment and instruments in the studio; almost none of it was mine. J.P. Buckle, who recorded and produced most of them, has a particular sound I love; he has such a great touch, letting everything breathe. In the past I have always drenched my music in reverb and he loves reverb too. As far as would the outside environment affect the record... it's hard to say as most studios are the same: horrid, dank rooms closed off from the world and in half light. But this seems to work well. I guess Brazilian weather might make for a more stress-free person to shut the studio door.
Do you think there is a future for ghosts in London as all the old buildings are lost to shiny, glass monoliths?
I actually quite like a lot of new buildings. It is a shame we can't have both, though, but I certainly can't stomach too much romanticising over old and broken things. There's too much safety in being overly sentimental. It’s much healthier to be driven by what new beautiful thing could be made.
Mathew Sawyer has been listening to these records recently:
Vic Chesnutt - Little
Michael Hurley - Armchair Boogie
Terry Riley - In C
Castanets - Cathedral
Dock Boggs - Complete Early Recordings
Richard Brautigan - Listening to Richard Brautigan
You can hear songs from it at the band's Myspace, if you like. There are some gigs scheduled for the months ahead, but Mathew's martial arts prowess seems to have thrown a spanner in the works in regards to that, so I guess you should probably keep going back to Myspace for updates.
Photograph courtesy of Vasiliki Ana